Carol Callan Leaves Behind Storied Legacy as USA Women’s Team Director
Callan retired after Tokyo Olympics having served as USA Women's National Team director since 1995.
Seven consecutive Olympic gold medals.
It is quite a legacy for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team. And as you would expect, there are many people associated with and responsible for that success throughout the years.
None are more important than Carol Callan.
While her career totals for USA Basketball include no points, no rebounds and no assists, Callan created the foundation and philosophy for what is one of the most successful dynasties in Olympic history, including winning that seventh straight gold medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. It matches the USA Basketball Men’s National Teams that swept the first seven gold medals in Olympic history (1936-68) for most consecutive golds in hoops.
The Tokyo Games marked Callan’s last event as director of the Women’s National Team after 26 years. The 68-year-old announced just before the Games that she was leaving the position to focus on her role as FIBA Americas president, which she was elected to a four-year team in 2019. She is the first female president of FIBA Americas.
During this time, she has been responsible for not only setting the tone, but helping pick the players who would don the red, white and blue at the various age levels.
“When you think of a career and what you get to do, having experienced being around the best that consistently performed at such a high level and are rewarded for that
and yet, to be able to do this all around the world and to represent the country, it’s the best job ever,” said Callan, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in August.”
And she said she basically fell into the job.
Right place, right time
Callan was working as a high school athletic director when, at a national convention, she bumped into a fellow AD at the school in St. Louis where her dad taught. The other AD was high on the ladder in the National Federation of High Schools and asked if Callan wanted to serve on a basketball committee.
Thinking it was probably a rules committee, she said okay. Turned out it was as a high school representative on the selection committee for the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America (ABAUSA) — the precursor of USA Basketball — helping pick the players for various age-group teams from 1989 to 1992. Following the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, she was the chair of the staff and player selection committees for the next Olympic cycle.
“I did that at the time when, sadly, we hadn’t won in ’92 or ’94,” Callan said of the Olympic Games and FIBA World Cup. “And the NBA was getting interested in whether women’s basketball could sell. So, all of those forces came together to start the national team program in 1995.”
Callan was asked by C.M. Newton, the former college men’s coach who was at the time president of USA Basketball, to become the initial director of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team.
“It wasn’t something I knew even existed,” Callan said. “Had I known it existed, it probably wouldn’t have happened the same way. It was an opportunity that just came about. I always tell people, ‘If you just keep your eyes open and don’t have tunnel vision for something you think you want to do or have to do, the opportunities come your way.’ And this was just a tremendous opportunity.”
Success from the start
The USA Women’s National Team program was established in 1995 in an attempt for the U.S. women to better prepare for a run at gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Callan already had identified a significant issue with how the U.S. had competed on the international stage. While the USA Men’s National Team was able to use NBA players beginning in Barcelona and could pull together 12 of the best players in the world just before the Games — remember, this was before international players became a regular part of the NBA — the WNBA would not play its first game until the summer of 1997.
“The reason we hadn’t won those two competitions was more due to lack of preparation, which was why we looked at a yearlong program,” Callan said of pulling together a Women’s National Team roster a year in advance of the Atlanta Games. “The yearlong program also was a promotional opportunity to see if women’s basketball could sell and whether the WNBA was viable in the minds of the people that wanted to do that. So, I think there was great talent in the U.S., great coaches, but they never had been together as long as you are today.”
For Atlanta, that inaugural team brought together the likes of Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Ruthie Bolton, Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain for a 10-month pre-Olympic tour. Current U.S. coach Dawn Staley also was on the roster.
All that team did in 10 months of preparation was win 52 games
in seven countries with more than 100,000 miles of travel, before dominating eight games in Atlanta en route to what is now the first of seven consecutive gold medals.
“There’s some continuity you have to have internationally, and we just didn’t have it at that time,” Callan said. “So that yearlong program allowed us to get that continuity to the point where when we went into Atlanta, I don’t think there was any stopping our team, even though against Australia in the semifinals and certainly Brazil in the final, it took every ounce of that to be able to be victorious. And that’s what I think people don’t maybe understand as much. The final score doesn’t reflect how difficult these games are. Until you lose, then everybody goes off.”
In addition to having six previous Olympians on the team that played in the Tokyo Games, the team had played together in various forms in events since 2019. Before it was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge tour taking place with the Women’s National Team playing college programs, not only creating chemistry, but raising the awareness level of the Olympic team.
It’s about people
With a country full of the very best players in the world, it can be tough to figure out who belongs. Not everyone is a fit. Callan always has emphasized culture and character when putting together rosters, whether it is for a U16 event or the Olympic Games.
Callan attended a seminar in which Disney executives gave a presentation about customer service. She said Disney’s goal was to get you to visit Disney World just once — but if you did, that you would have such a fantastic day and be treated so well that you had to go back time and time again.
“I think that is the important part about USA Basketball,” Callan said. “People don’t play because of me. They play because they enjoy the experience. They enjoy the competition and the competitiveness. In my way, whatever I can do to keep that going so that our best players want to play over and over again and that they still enjoy it, so others then want to do it. I think that is something I am proud of.”
Especially at the younger levels, it is also helping the players grow. In a majority of the situations, players selected to represent USA Basketball in FIBA junior competitions are venturing out of the country for the first time and are of the same talent level as the others on the roster. No longer are they the only four or five-star player in the same uniform or on the court.
“There’s too much time and energy in this that makes it difficult if you’re not willing to go through some of the good times and the bad times. You have to have good character so you can bounce back from those things,” Callan said. “I think one of the things that’s most interesting about coming in as a young player is, up to that point, you’ve had your support group that’s been around you. When you’re not happy, they try to make you happy. They try to tell you how good you are, keep your confidence up.
“You come into our world, and now you’re a group of 12 players who are all pretty good, and not everybody’s there every day to worry about you. I think the players kind of bond together and that whole experience, when they know there’s a comfort level and they can do that and they don’t have to worry about, ‘Is someone going to really make sure they get off the plane and onto a bus in some foreign country,’ that’s a security blanket. Anybody could do that, but I hope to close it out strong and not lose anybody. Those are the kinds of things I think young kids enjoy. And then we smile and laugh together, too.”
Several of the players on the younger teams refer to Callan as “Miss Carol” when talking about her.
“Obviously, you know your family loves you no matter what,” Callan said. “So, it’s nice when someone else acknowledges that. And I think they know that, personally, I would do anything for them and that I care. And I think if they just know that, then that speaks volumes.”
After Tokyo and beyond
The search is on for who will replace Callan as director. She vows to help her successor in whatever way is needed. With the Tokyo Games possibly marking the end of an era for at least two Olympians — five-time gold medalists Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird — Callan knew the time was right to bring a new voice. She still will be around as a consultant.
“I haven’t even really contemplated the day after, but that will happen,” Callan said. “I’m just hoping that at the end of that, when that day after happens, that we’re all sitting there feeling pretty good about it.”
And she should feel good. After all, the U.S. has lost just once in major competition since the 1995-96 Women’s National Team was created, and that came in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup. One loss in 119 games, including a current streak of 55 consecutive Olympic victories and 68 in FIBA events. That success also continues to the younger levels. Since 2009, with the launch of the FIBA Americas U16 Championship, Callan’s teams in the traditional five-on-five format at age-based events captured 21 gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal, and the USA lists as the reigning champion at the U16 and U18 FIBA Americas Championships and the U17 and U19 FIBA World Cups.
While the cupboard wasn’t bare when she took over, Callan is leaving a fully furnished house.
“I think it’s bright,” Callan said of what lies ahead. “I think there’s some of the future where you can sort of look and see how the women’s game tends to follow the men’s game in terms of opportunities. There’s an opportunity to play and make money and play as long as you can. As long as competition stays at a high level, the game will be fine.”
Callan said she leaves with no regrets, other than she might have been too focused on the job at times, but she is proud of the legacy she has created over these last 26 years.
“I think when you combine seeing people at their best and helping people be their best in a sports setting, traveling all over the world, representing your country, in essence, it’s been a dream job,” said Callan, pointing out her friendship with the Australian staff. “We enjoy seeing each other. You have a small piece, a small component to world peace. You let them see what an American is like. I think because I’ve always been curious and I’ve enjoyed other people, to be able to do it on a grander scale and at the world level, it’s fulfilling.
The next steps, which will include completing her term as FIBA Americas president. also will provide challenges and opportunities for Callan.
“You know, there’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and that self-actualization of you, you get to be what you’re meant to be. I think that’s been my case. I think I truly embrace that. And I feel like that’s the pinnacle of what I can be. And now I have an opportunity, within that realm, to see if there’s maybe not even a little bit more to it.”